Review “Conceptualising forums and blogs as public sphere” by Thomas Poell (2009)

Here is my short summary and reflection on Poell, T. (2009). Conceptualizing forums and blogs as public spheres. In Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, edited by van den Boomen, M., Lammes, S., Lehmann, A.-S., Raessens, J., Schäfer, M. T. 239-251. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Written on 23 March 2017.

The article analyses online discussions on forums and blogs, in the aftermath of the assassination of the controversial Dutch film director Theo van Gogh by the young Dutch Moroccan Mohammed B. to evaluate whether and how the public sphere and the multiple alternative or counter-public spheres theories can be used to assess the contribution of forums and blogs to public debate. In this essay, I will summarize the core arguments of the article and compare them with other research findings and scholars’ arguments to explain the role of blogs and forums in constituting public sphere or multiple public spheres.

In the first three days after the assassination, research was done on 4 Internet forums: Pim Fortuyn Forum, Indymedia, FOK!forum!, and Marokko Community, which cover different areas of the cultural and political landscape. Poell’s analysis (2009) shows that the blog posts and forum discussions were dominated by emotional or offensive posts and far from critical debate. Many of the forum comments were irrelevant from the main threads and very few participants made comments from multi-perspectives. However, discussions on any means of communication are not always critical and courteous. An analysis of political party discussion lists in the Netherlands conducted by Hagemann (cited in Dahlgren 2005) showed that even public debate between politicians was typically lack of supporting arguments. Nevertheless, there are several reasons why harsh language seems to be common on the Internet. First, people can make comment with relatively anonymity; for example, forum participants can make contributions under a nickname. The online anonymity certainly helps to foster discussion where everyone is relatively equal regardless of their social or economical status. However, it also means that they are not accountable for their speech. Second, people find it easier to antagonize distant abstract targets.

Even though there were a few critical rational arguments made on Indymedia and Marokko Community, they still do not meet the ideal of rational-critical discourse, which is one of the criteria of the public sphere. However, they indicate that this ideal discourse is possible on the Internet under specific conditions, for example employing strict forum management to facilitate open, honest, and respectful discussions (Poell 2009). A comparative study of local online participation in Estonia and Norway, conducted by Reinsalu & Winsvold (2008), also shows that moderation in discussion forums impact on the level of participation.

In addition to the emotional and irreverent posts that characterize these forums, Poell (2009) found that only a small number of forum members engaged in the discussions. Furthermore, the discussions investigated in the article were ‘homogenous regarding ideology’ and ‘far from inclusive’ (Poell 2009, p. 242) FOK!forum! and Marokko Community even made xenophobic and racist statements. The discussions justified some scholars’ warnings that the Internet generates fragmentation, facilitates group polarization, which may lead to isolated groups of extreme views and ignorance (Papacharissi 2002, Caiani & Parenti 2011, Sunstein 2009). One of the conditions of public sphere is ideal-role taking in which contrary or conflicting positions respectfully listen to and challenge each other (Habermas cited in Dahlberg 2001). The fragmented discourse on the Internet, therefore, undermines public sphere rather than reinforcing it.

However, this is not to say that forum discussions do not have positive impact on public debate. According to Papacharissi (2002), online discussions expand participants’ horizons by challenging contrary viewpoints and cultural stereotypes. A comparative study conducted be Tsaliki (cited in Dahlgren 2005) shows a positive result of public deliberation on forums in Greece, the Netherlands, and Britain.

For all the findings above, it is concluded that Internet forums seem to be not an expansion of the Habermasian public sphere. Poell (2009) arrived at a similar conclusion regard to web blogs and argued that blogs also seem unlikely to be ideal platforms for the development of multiple public spheres but individual expression.

Furthermore, most blogs are very focused; individual’s blogs cannot cover large items of news like the mainstream media and each might choose different niche. Another problem with blogosphere is that not all voices are equally heard. One needs certain technical skills and time commitment to set up and maintain a blog. Yet, there is no guarantee that their blogs will have large readership. They needs to have established reputation in the real world or get trackback links from already prominent bloggers (O’Baoill 2004). Therefore, it is argued that blogosphere tends to benefit a group of elite bloggers who might already in power (Farrel and Drezne 2008; Shirky 2009; Hindman 2008).

On the other hand, forums seem to facilitate the expression of different group interests and opinions better, but the facts that none of the investigated forums had influence on the larger debate in the mass media and that the debate on these forums were dominated by hateful messages led to the conclusion that forums also fail to meet the criteria of multiple alternative public spheres. Consequently, rather than holding on to these concepts, which inevitably leads us to dismiss the vast majority of online communication, we should do further research on how online discussions transforms society and political process.

A normative condition of public sphere which Poell (2009) neglected to mention is the autonomy of blogs and forums from state and economic power. Most forums and blogs were operating independently from political parties and corporates. Even the producers of Geentijl, which is a blog partly owned by the newspaper De Telegraaf, do not consider themselves as mass media and are not influenced by the authority of the Netherlands Press Council (Pleijter, Hermans, & Vergeer, p. 244). We can thus conclude that these blogs and forums were not corrupted by economic or political influence. An argument worth to explore, however, is that as any means of communication, online public debate will essentially become corrupted by commercialism (Papacharissi 2002).

Poell (2009) found no evidence of the ability of forum and blogs to transform public debate into joint actions or lasting social change in the context of Theo Van Gogh’s assassination. However, it would be precipitate if we conclude that these platforms have little social and political impact. In fact, they are particularly significant to the public sphere in totalitarian nations. In the once-military-rule-country, Burmese bloggers played the key role in revealing the bloody crackdown of Burma government on the peaceful protests in 2007 (Drash 2007). Their posts were shared by bloggers around the world and were one of the main sources for international mass media coverage while foreign journalists had limited access to Burma. They also stirred public discourse by questioning military dictatorship (Ko 2007). These blog entries generated huge discussion and usually received many comments, which were up to over 100 at once. The analysis of Burmese blogging on the crackdown shows that the online tools offer opportunities to participate in political debate for people whose freedom of speech is suppressed in the offline environments.

Considering the ability to generate public debate of blogs and forums, the possibility of resolving political problems as well as their limited reflexivity, the dominance of certain individuals and groups, the risk of group polarization, we thus conclude that forums and blogs may partly constitute public sphere or multiple public sphere. However, to fully understand the role of blogs and forums in public debate, we need to make comparative study of online discussions in contrary context, for instance in democratic and suppressive countries. Does the fact that there are a variety of options for political participation and public debate in face-to-face environments in democratic countries lead to the low level of public deliberation on the Internet? Do people in democratic countries turn to free-press mass media and their long-established public arenas more than online arenas?

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Poell, T. (2009). Conceptualizing forums and blogs as public spheres. In Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, edited by van den Boomen, M., Lammes, S., Lehmann, A.-S., Raessens, J., Schäfer, M. T. 239-251. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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